Sugarland Kicks Up Their Heels with Third Album
NASHVILLE — The offices of CMT aren't Hawaii, but Sugarland is determined to make the most of it.
Standing in front of a green screen on the tropics-themed set of Top 20, CMT's weekly countdown show, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush watch the backgrounds change on a nearby monitor and adjust their behavior accordingly, making dancing-mermaid moves for an underwater scene, then pretending to wash each other's hair in front of a waterfall.
"We don't get a whole lot of time off in this job, so we make our work our vacation," Nettles quips.
Despite the beach garb — Nettles is wearing a black summer dress, Bush sports a T-shirt, knee-length shorts and a fedora — the duo have a lot of work to do. They're knocking out several shows at once: chatting with Top 20 host Lance Smith, juggling multiple interviews, taping enough promos to keep them on the cable channel through the holidays.
It's a much better deal than the first time Sugarland visited these offices in 2004, when they played a few songs in a conference room for the staff.
Since debut single Baby Girl hit the country charts four years ago this week, Sugarland has gone from being something of a local Atlanta supergroup to being one of the most reliable hitmakers on the country scene.
Love on the Inside, Sugarland's third album, comes out today, an almost certain No. 1 country album. The act has sold nearly 5 million copies of two previous discs. Current single All I Want to Do is No. 3 and climbing on USA TODAY's country airplay chart.
In a conservative country music industry that places high value on following established business models, Nettles and Bush follow their own muse.
"We sort of have a why-not philosophy," Nettles says.
As in, why not stay in your hometown of Atlanta when most country acts promptly move to Nashville? Why not make Bon Jovi the first rock group to have a No. 1 country hit by dueting on Who Says You Can't Go Home? Why not crowd-surf over your audience in inflatable spheres?
"They haven't required any creative input," says Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Luke Lewis. "They've been writing and performing a long time. They came to the party ready."
Formed in 2003, Sugarland has deep roots in Atlanta's vibrant rock scene of the late '80s and '90s. Guitarist/singer Bush, 38, had been one-half of a folk-rock duo called Billy Pilgrim, signed to Atlantic Records. Lead singer Nettles, 33, had released independent albums with a couple of different acts. A third member, Kristen Hall, who dropped out in 2006, was an established singer/songwriter on the folk circuit.
Sugarland has thrived since Hall left to focus on writing. From a visibility perspective, her departure may have even helped, moving their awards eligibility from group to duo categories and allowing them to end Brooks & Dunn's six-year vocal duo of the year run at last fall's Country Music Association Awards.
The accolades have been coming more quickly. Nettles won a Grammy last year for the Bon Jovi duet. At May's Academy of Country Music Awards, Sugarland's Stay won both single and song of the year trophies.
Though her awards without Bush fuel speculation Nettles might launch a solo career, she waves off such talk.
"I'm happy where I am," Nettles says, "and Kristian is my favorite person to write and create with. I love the environment we've made out on the road as partners."
Nettles uses the word "partners" in a musical sense, although she says fans often pick up on their intimacy. "People ask us all the time in the meet-and-greets, 'Now, are y'all married?' " says Nettles, who is divorced. "There's a comfort we have that is not sexual. It feels like family. It's hard for people to understand male/female friends, so it's easier to say 'family.' "
Bush, who is married with two children, adds, "It's very brother-and-sister."
After two albums the duo considers on-the-job training, Love on the Inside, recorded at Atlanta's Southern Tracks studio, puts them where they want to be.
"With our first record, we were just trying to figure out how to write for country radio," Nettles says. "With our second record, we were trying to figure out how to survive and do another record that was successful. This record, we have had more time to go in and explore, both as writers and as recording artists."
The songs range wide, from the sing-songy falsetto hook of All I Want to Do to Genevieve, which draws from Appalachian folk. Joey— written with Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson, who grew up on the Georgia street where Bush now lives — gives the teen-tragedy theme a twist by dealing with survivor's guilt. The tongue-in-cheek Steve Earle implores the oft-married singer/songwriter to write a song for Jennifer as good as the ones he's written about his ex-wives.
When the duo tried to send the song to Earle via his manager, they got a message back saying Earle never read his own press, so he certainly wouldn't listen to a song about himself. But he had laughed when told the song's premise.
"Yes! We made Steve Earle laugh!" Nettles exclaims. "Awesome!"
With the release of Love on the Inside, Sugarland has turned record-company practice on its ear. Instead of reissuing the disc with bonus tracks several months from now, forcing fans to shell out extra money for a minimal amount of new material, Sugarland is putting out the deluxe edition this week, then releasing the standard edition July 29.
"It's inappropriate to gouge your fans and ask them to buy something twice," Bush says.
The bonus content, five tracks plus video footage, includes the duo's live performance of Dream Academy's 1986 pop hit Life in a Northern Town from the CMT Awards in April. The performance, which also featured Little Big Town and Jake Owen, peaked at No. 29 on USA TODAY's country airplay chart earlier this year, despite never having been released officially as a single.
Few country entertainers embrace pop as broadly and as wholeheartedly as Sugarland. After video of the duo performing a bluegrass version of Beyoncé's Irreplaceable surfaced on YouTube, they wound up performing it with the singer on the American Music Awards.
The new deluxe disc also includes a live cover of Matt Nathanson's Come On Get Higher. Additionally, they've been known to perform Pearl Jam's Better Man, Tom Petty's American Girl and Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me.
"We did that when we first started to play out, and people just loved it," Nettles says.
They've previously opened high-profile tours for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Brooks & Dunn. ("Opening for those guys is like going to entertainment school," Bush says.) This fall's tour — with opening acts Kellie Pickler and Ashton Shepherd, perhaps the only two young female singers in country with Southern accents more prominent than Nettles' — will give Sugarland the chance to put into practice the lessons they've learned from watching other headliners.
"This is the first time we've actually had the resources to say, 'Well, if we wanted to use video content, how would we use that?' " Nettles says.
They're contemplating not just the acts they've toured with, but also the shows they've seen as fans and the music DVDs they take on the road.
"It's not unheard of on our bus to see live concert footage from the last 15, 20 years," Bush says. "We're so inspired by these things, and we go, 'How can we take that and make it our own? Or can we?' That's fun for us."